In the wake of high profile scandals, many states have extended the time period in which victims of childhood sexual abuse can bring claims against their abusers. On January 28, 2019, New York State followed the trend when the legislature passed the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims. These claims can be made against the abuser, or against the institution that employed the abuser, such as schools or churches. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised to sign the bill into law.
The current New York statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse requires criminal or civil charges to be brought before the victim’s 23rd birthday. Once the Child Victims Act goes into effect, the statute of limitations will allow a victim to sue for childhood sex abuse until the victim reaches age 55. Also, prosecutors may bring felony charges against an abuser until the victim turns 28.
Six months after Governor Cuomo signs the bill, there will be a one-year “look-back window” which will suspend the statute of limitations for civil child sex abuse claims and allow victims to file lawsuits. During this look-back period, any victim of sexual abuse may sue their abuser or the organization which harbored the abuser, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. Nine other states have enacted similar look-back provisions.
While the Child Victims Act will allow more victims to sue their abusers, the bill does not reduce the burden of proof victims must meet to prove that suffered sexual abuse as a child. This burden of proof is a “fair preponderance of the evidence,” which is a lower standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases. A fair preponderance of the evidence means that the victim presented enough evidence to make the jury believe that it is more likely than not the abuse took place.
The passage of this law highlights the importance that institutions, such as schools, take any complaint of abuse seriously including reporting such abuse when mandated and investigating complaints.